Thursday, February 14, 2008

Northern Illinois University

Every parent's nightmare happened again, this time at NIU. My condolences to the students, faculty, and families there.

It's scary in so many ways. From early reports, and from Stephen Karlson's on-the-scene reportage, it sounds like NIU did a whole lot of things right. The police arrived quickly, notifications went out quickly, everybody who could be kept out of the way was. Even with all of that, over twenty people were shot, several fatally. The shooter apparently was a former graduate student, so he knew the campus.

The early tv coverage kept using terms like 'lockdown,' but it's hard to imagine just how that could work on an open, sprawling campus. K-12 schools are often a single building surrounded by a parking lot and/or athletic fields, so it's relatively easy to restrict access to the inside. But most colleges and universities of any size have multiple buildings, many different functions going on simultaneously, and a constantly changing stream of people walking around at any given time. At my college, for instance, it's not unusual to have regular classes, non-credit classes, public programs, and swim meets happening simultaneously. People come and go all the time, and there's absolutely nothing unusual about seeing faces you don't recognize. I see people I don't recognize every single day. It's more like a small city than, say, a high school. How do you lock down a small city?

At larger universities, the problem is even greater. How would you lock down the University of Michigan? You'd half to put half of Ann Arbor in a bubble. It's just not reality.

And even that is all based on the assumption that a lockdown would help. Early reports indicate that the shooter killed himself before the police arrived, and they arrived as quickly as could be asked.

I don't have any answers for this. When I heard the news on the radio on the way home, I stopped thinking like a dean, started thinking like a parent, and had to drive through tears. The kids got some extra hugs tonight, not knowing why.

Sometimes there are no words.